Consumer Marketplaces as Intermediaries

Before web marketplaces came along, many businesses would search for products in their bookshelves full of directories from the Thomas Register. For many years, this register was the most popular and comprehensive list of manufacturers across all major industries. But today, there are web marketplaces for practically every type of product a business could need. By providing their matchmaking and procurement services, these marketplaces can create a profile of a company’s needs that can be used to target advertising and promotional messages.

The B2B marketplace sites have received considerable media coverage recently about matching buyers and sellers in various niche markets. While these marketplace sites are taking care of B2B customers, a few sites are trying to match consumers at home in the B2C market. These consumer marketplaces cover a wide range of home and home office needs, which means they are gathering broad lifestyle profile data.

There are several different types of B2B marketplaces that help buyers find sellers of specific products amid the wide range of products available within an industry. In addition, some of these online marketplaces provide a community where comments and reviews can be posted.

B2C marketplaces perform many of the same functions as their B2B cousins, but they face bigger challenges in their quest for success. In a B2B setting, the recommenders (decision makers) and purchasing officers frequently shop for specific products. Also, they are comfortable buying from a distant company and make rather expensive purchases.

For consumers at home, the Thomas Register has been the equivalent of the Yellow Pages telephone directory. It is geographically targeted to the user’s location and segmented by interest or product need. Among the several web sites that have attempted to improve on the telephone directory, Citysearch is an example of one site that provided merchants in many markets an opportunity to buy a listing in a local shopping directory.

One of the main problems local retailers have had with directory sites, like the original Citysearch, is tracking results. Merchants had practically no way to know if their ads were working because no tracking was built into the process of driving traffic to their stores.

Over the last few years, Citysearch has evolved into primarily an entertainment directory. At the same time, other sites that use the complete telephone directory database, such as Switchboard.com, provide more complete lists of local merchants. However, these directories still cannot develop profile tracking because they don’t know if a user actually calls or visits a local merchant.

There are several ways to profile users based on which pages they see, but it’s still hard for directory sites to determine when someone is truly interested in making a purchase. The concept behind consumer-oriented marketplace sites, such as imandi and NextDoor, is aimed at solving several problems of past consumer directory sites.

Instead of trying to be a directory of shops that can be found as close as the local shopping mall, these sites are concentrating on a different consumer problem — contacting several merchants in order to obtain quality services at competitive prices.

In addition, these sites are more than the typical local merchant directory because they act as intermediaries between the consumers and local service providers.

These sites ask consumers specific questions about their needs in much the same way that salespeople do in order to provide an estimate for services. This information is then passed along to local merchants looking to bid on providing that type of service.

This matching and information distribution process is designed to help consumers in several ways. Questions on the web form help the consumer provide the specific information needed by merchants in order to prepare a bid. By having the consumer answer the questions only once and by distributing the bid request to several merchants, the marketplace sites save the consumer time.

In addition, the lifestyle profile data gathered about these consumers can be helpful to the marketplace site in targeting ads and understanding which services are needed most by their audience in each market.

Of course, there is the question of whether consumers will take the time to use these web sites. It takes time and effort to fill out a web form — time that could be better spent just calling a merchant who could answer the same questions directly.

There are still hurdles for consumer marketplace sites, but they are showing us again that the World Wide Web can also be the “neighborhood wide web.”

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